Music And Memory

Music, more than any other medium, relies on memory. It’s not something one thinks about much but giving it some thought, you realize that it’s true. Look at the way songs are structured. Take any Pop, Rock, or Country song and you’ll see a common structure to the way they are written. A song usually starts out with a short music intro, setting up the theme of the song. Then you have the first verse. Often, a second verse is sung to the same tune as the first verse, but with different words. You remember the tune of the second verse because you just heard it in the first verse. Then there’s a chorus. The words of the chorus are related to the words of the first and second verse but with a different tune. Then either the first verse is repeated or a third verse is added with the same tune as the first and second but with new words. And finally the song goes back to the chorus. Sometimes the chorus is played after a music interlude and before the third verse. However it’s written, a song relies on your memory to be enjoyable.

Classical music, is written in the same way, relying on memory. As the conductor John Mauceri writes in his book, “For the love of Music,” “It is safe to say that the first movement of every symphony, concerto, string quartet, and piano sonata in the classical canon, uses this form.” He’s talking about the “sonata form.” The composer, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) basically invented and perfected the form in the many symphonies and string quartets he wrote in his life. In the sonata form, two musical themes are introduced (called exposition), one after the other. These two themes are obviously of different character and easily heard as such. The two themes are then developed (called development), or brought together in the music. Each theme is still recognizable even though they are now being played together and changed somewhat. Sometimes the two themes are melded into each other. And then in the third part of the sonata form the two themes come back into their own for the finally of the sonata form (called recapitulation). As you listen to any piece of classical music (Beethoven’s 5th symphony with the famous first four notes, G, G, G, and E, comes to mind) the first movement will have this same form. When you know this, it’s actually quite fun to listen to music you’ve not heard before to see if you can pick out the different themes, and figure out what the composer is doing with them. And it all relies on the memory of what you’ve just heard.

Music uses your memory in other ways as well. For instance, most of us remember songs from our past. A lot of music is tied up with memories of happy or sad times. We remember a favorite song from years ago. We remember the first time we heard a song, where we were and what we were doing. Music is associated with love, and loss. Music used in movies always sparks our memory of that movie. No other art form that I can think of is associated with memory the way music is. It seems that every time I hear a song it causes me to remember something from my past. I love the associations to past memories I can make by listening to music. I have well over 200 CD’s and I listen to music every day. It is amazing how virtually every song you hear is structured in the same way and yet we hardly think about that. Knowing how how music is written helps me enjoy it more. I remember (see, it’s all memory) getting a new vinyl album when I was young and reading all the liner notes. I wanted to know every thing I could about the bands I listened to and the music they wrote. Those were good times.

And I still do that. I listen to more classical music today than I ever have before and I want to know all about the composers, conductors, and orchestras or groups who play. I always wanted to be informed about the music I was listening to. Some of my best memories are tied up in music. So, dig out those old records, crank the stereo up and have some great memories!


  1. I was amazed a few years ago to watch a Youtube of a classical orchestra playing the Allman Brothers’s song “Whipping Post.” I consider that composition to be a masterpiece.


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